Friday, February 05, 2010

Anarchism and authority

It seems clear that anarchism at least entails opposition to "hierarchies" and authority and promotion of voluntary cooperation. The problem is, I can't figure out precisely what they mean by these terms. Worse yet, a philosophical investigation doesn't reveal any sense of these terms that makes rational sense as the organization principles of a working society of actual human beings on the planet.

Anarchists complain that I don't understand anarchism. They're probably right. But whose fault is that? I've never heard a convincing description of anarchism that didn't employ vague generalities. When I try to drill down to the specifics, I face increasing hostility and contempt, and I'm dismissed as not having the spirit of the Lord not "getting it"*, that I should read The Bible the Anarchist FAQ, and that I'm just a heretic Maoist tyrant (or have unspecified "Maoist tendencies"**, whatever that means).

*Scare quotes
**Actual quotation

(Communism is, in contrast, relatively simple to describe: The "government" "owns" the capital; the people own the government. The devil is, of course, in the details, but communism is fundamentally predicated on the idea that concentrated capital is under present-day material circumstances orders of magnitude more effective than distributed capital, and there are mutually beneficial uses of capital that are not in any individual's or "freely associating" group's interest. Communism is not intended to be perfect or optimal, merely substantively less sub-optimal than modern capitalism.)

What precisely do anarchists mean by "authority" and "voluntary cooperation"? It's obviously not the case that anarchists are opposed to "authority" in the sense of expertise; it seems ridiculous to suppose that anarchists would consider it objectionable to label Bjarne Stroustrup as an authority on C++. Nor is it reasonable to suppose that anarchists oppose "definitional" authority: I can't see any sensible opposition to the idea that the distance traveled by light in free space in 1⁄299,792,458 of a second is the authoritative definition of the meter. It also doesn't seem sensible (to the extent that the Catholic church is to some extent a "voluntary association") to oppose the Pope's authority to define Catholic doctrine.

It seems logical at first glance to interpret the kind of authority that anarchists oppose as having something to do with coercion, the ability to force people to do things. Of course, coercion is (in an abstract sense) an ineluctable property of the physical universe; it would be ludicrous to be opposed to physics and entirely uncharitable to attribute that opposition to anarchists.

One might see anarchism as opposition to the "imposition" of coercive authority. This view, however, seems contradicted by the fact that there's no place to impose coercive authority from. All structures in human society — authoritarian or otherwise — are self-organized; they come from "within" the society.

(The anarchist opposition to "hierarchy" does seems really nonsensical; a small group that exercised coercive power should be objectionable even if it were organized other than hierarchically. For example, the capitalist ruling class employs hierarchical structures, but is not itself organized hierarchically. Similarly the self-organization of natural (non-human) ecosystems shows degrees of hierarchical organization, such as the "food chain" — strictly speaking a food web, but we can identify more-or-less hierarchical levels.)

Just by excluding plausible alternatives, we're almost forced to see anarchism as opposed in principle to any concentration of coercive power. (It must be "in principle" and "any"; were it otherwise, it would be something-archism, not nothing-archism.)

For coercion to not be concentrated, it must therefore be nearly perfectly distributed (any substantial deviation from perfect distribution is by definition concentration). But if coercion is perfectly distributed, then a majority of people can therefore arbitrarily* exercise coercive force on a minority. This "distribution" leads to Orwell's observation that,
In a Society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behavior is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by 'thou shalt not', the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by 'love' or 'reason', he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else.
It is simple observation that the rights and freedoms of minorities, including the individual as a minority of one, can be guarded only by a minority.

*Technically a redundancy; coercive force is necessarily exercised arbitrarily.

The only alternatives to unchecked democracy would be if it an individual or group was not able to coerce any individual, or if people were so constituted that they categorically did not want to coerce others. The former seems physically (and perhaps logically) impossible; the latter definitely not presently the case.

Another important consideration is that there are intrinsic variations in individuals and in the organization of more-or-less "voluntary" associations. These variations can combine naturally to afford some groups more power to effect their desires than other groups. And, of course, one natural desire is for more power. Not only does power naturally concentrate, but the concentration of power forms a positive feedback loop. In order to keep power distributed, some group would have to have the authority — the coercive power — to block or reverse natural concentrations of power. Concentration of power is necessary to stop concentration of power, a nifty paradox.

We have a similar situation regarding people's desires and will. It sure would be nice if people didn't want to coerce others, but people's desires tend to vary randomly. In order to have a population without some set of desires, someone has to actually select against those desires, i.e. to exercise coercive force. We don't actually solve the problem by operating on desires instead of actions, we just move the problem of "authority" to who gets to perform the selection of desires.

I think anarchism is not a coherent or realistic political philosophy, but I'm not at all against anarchism and anarchists. I think it's a Good Thing to have a group of people in the world implacably opposed to any concentration of coercive force. While it seems physically necessary under present-day and foreseeable circumstances to have some concentration of coercive force, i.e. some kind of authority, no authority should ever sleep easy, and anarchists are necessary to disturb their sleep.

15 comments:

  1. It seems that people like calling you a fucktard, but I am not one of those people I have other words I like to call people and fucktard certainly isn't of them.

    I am not an anarchist but I am a sympathizer. I understand there to be a strong historical precedent for anarchism generally, so I would call it premature to argue with people who simply wear it as a label. You point out such elementary flaws that I cannot really take your word for the issues. You would be doing us more of a service by exploring what anarchist writers say on the issue.

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  2. Keep in mind that I'm a philosopher, not a scholar. Scholarship is insanely difficult, and I write this blog in my spare time. If the flaws I point out are elementary, it should be easy to correct them. I'm used to criticizing religion and philosophy, where the flaws, as elementary as they seem to be, appear to be unexamined and uncorrected by those who claim substantial expertise.

    If you'll bring something specific to my attention, and give me a reason to investigate more closely, I'd be happy to look more deeply into it. Keep in mind that I've browsed the Anarchist FAQ, but I've hardly read it exhaustively.

    Also, I don't expect anyone to take my word for anything. All I'm here to do is tell you what my own opinion is, and maybe point my readers in directions similar to those I'm taking.

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  3. Hi Larry,
    Your definition of Communism is incorrect. You are referring more likely to the socialist stage, or the dictatorship of the proletariat.

    This period, Lenin mentioned, would last 20 generations. Marx never defined the mechanics of a communist society because it was not a practical matter needing changes in the social conditions in order for humanity to create a form of society without exploitation.

    The debate between Bakunin, Proudhon and Marx was less about how the new society after the socialist stage would look like, but rather based on the need to keep the state in place (the state you describe) during this period.

    Anarchists refused the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the need for continuing the state but neither Anarchism neither Marxism define in clear terms how the last stage of human society (communism for the Communists) would actually look like.

    Jerry

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  4. Your definition of Communism is incorrect.

    There is no really "correct" definition of Communism, just different definitions.

    I'm trying to capture as best I can the difference between people who call themselves "communists" today, especially me personally, and those who call themselves anarchists.

    Fundamentally, I can't really see any long-term difference between anarchists and communists; we're both going to the same place; the argument seems to be about how to get there.

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  5. It's also necessary to be more precise about what you mean by "state"; it's used even in the communist/socialist canon to mean the government in general as well as Lenin's sense of the government specifically organized as an instrument of class domination.

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  6. One of the problems with your approach is to think of Anarchism as

    a) a unified theory, and
    b) defined by being in opposition to other things.

    To address the first point, anarchism is a broad church. Different people think anarchism means different things. The only commonality among anarchists is a distaste for being told what to do by anyone, ever.

    To address the second point, anarchism should not be defined as "opposition to authority", in my opinion. It is better defined as "self determination at the level of the individual". If any particular group of individuals agrees to be governed, so be it: they can have a government and that's a satisfactorily anarchist outcome. The problem is when that group wants unrelated people, who didn't agree to the structure, to be subjected to the government as well.

    No one ever asked me to sign a contract agreeing to believe in nation states and the existence of arbitrary and fictitious borders. Consequently, I reject anyone's attempt to impose those things on me (at least intellectually; practically speaking I am forced to acquiesce because of the threat of violence against me).

    The reality is that every single person on Earth is an anarchist. I can demonstrate this quite simply: if you have ever valued your own judgement over that of a lawmaker, you are an anarchist. Since all people routinely value their own judgement in day-to-day circumstances over the judgement of remote and/or dead lawmakers, all people are anarchists.

    Another mistake people make when arguing against anarchism is that they adopt an "all or nothing" approach, essentially setting up straw men against which the anarchist apologist cannot argue. I don't think any serious anarchist is arguing for a total collapse of all governance and all established structures tomorrow. That would be absurd. Having a better society is not an exact science. Small, incremental improvements are not valueless simply because they don't revolutionize society.

    Probably too long, this comment, already. Mail me privately and I'd love to chat.

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  7. As I note in my later essay, I'm interested in a philosophical critique of anarchism, not a political critique. I want to answer the philosophical question: "Why do we need any particular privileged social constructions at all?"

    No one ever asked me to sign a contract agreeing to believe in nation states and the existence of arbitrary and fictitious borders.

    No one ever asked me to sign a contract agreeing not to commit murder, rape, assault, theft, arson or mopery on the high seas. Now it happens to be the case that I personally don't want to do those things, but it seems that a number of people actually do want to do them.

    The reality is that every single person on Earth is an anarchist.

    Of course. And the pattern of what does or does not actually get coerced in general emerges from how each individual does or does not allow him- or herself to be coerced.

    But it's one argument to say that you personally will resist coercion in some area. That's a fair argument, and it's often persuasive enough that I will do what I can to help that person actually resist coercion.

    It's another argument entirely to say that people in principle ought not to be coerced, either generally or in some specific area.

    I don't think any serious anarchist is arguing for a total collapse of all governance and all established structures tomorrow.

    Fair enough. However, when I as a communist actually propose a particular kind of governance and structure to replace capitalism, anarchists do say I'm a totalitarian dictator (or an apologist for totalitarian dictatorship) apparently just because I am proposing governance and structure; it does not appear to be related to the specific details of those structures.

    Case in point: db0 has indeed called me an apologist for totalitarian dictatorship even though I have not yet worked out the specific details of the communist governance and structures I want to propose. Apparently just that I want some specific kind of governance is sufficient reason to accuse me of totalitarian tendencies.

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  8. I'm going to have to post separate responses to your comment, because of the limitations of your comment feature on your blog.

    No one ever asked me to sign a contract agreeing not to commit murder, rape, assault, theft, arson or mopery on the high seas. Now it happens to be the case that I personally don't want to do those things, but it seems that a number of people actually do want to do them.

    And more importantly, they do them. Irrespective of the existence of laws or governments, they do them. My contention is that people who intend to rape, murder, steal and so on, are undeterred by the existence of laws or governments. Laws and governments simply add a wholly redundant yet costly and complicated overlay without providing any value in this instance. My belief is that the vast majority of people will not ever commit these crimes, whether government exists or not; and those who will commit these crimes, will do so, whether government exists or not.

    You might argue, although you haven't, that this is true but how will we punish or rehabilitate these people in the absence of laws or governments? I can't see why people couldn't take care of this on their own, collaboratively, on a case by case basis, as they must have done in acephalous nomadic societies, for hundreds of thousands of years prior to the the rise of agriculture, which gave rise to divisions of labour, sedentary culture, and hierarchical structures.

    Am I saying we have to return to a pre-agricultural nomadic lifestyle in order to be have an anarchist society? This is a common straw man. My opinion is that we already have an anarchist society and that no other society can, in fact, exist. Structured governance is merely a manifestation of organized violence, and is morally and functionally equivalent to organized crime. I admit that this is not a common view among anarchists, and it may be that many of my opinions on this subject are not representative of the "mainstream" anarchist view.

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  9. Comment 2:

    Of course. And the pattern of what does or does not actually get coerced in general emerges from how each individual does or does not allow him- or herself to be coerced. But it's one argument to say that you personally will resist coercion in some area. That's a fair argument, and it's often persuasive enough that I will do what I can to help that person actually resist coercion. It's another argument entirely to say that people in principle ought not to be coerced, either generally or in some specific area.

    Again, I am probably a bad anarchist theorist to debate these points. I would recommend you read Bakunin, Proudhon and Stirner, all of whom make the eloquent political arguments against coercion. Basically, they boil down to "natural rights" and "individual sovereignty", neither of which notions are controversial, I don't think.

    The problem is that a violent, coercive group has never been stopped by argument, either philosophical or political. Hitler was not stopped by rhetoric, he was stopped by getting his ass kicked in in a cold-blooded fashion. I accept that.

    I also do not believe in the existence of human rights, natural or otherwise. This means that I don't believe in "ought". Society is what it is. (Actually I am a determinist in this regard and a truer statement of my view is 'the world can only possibly be the way it is', but that's another conversation). So I can't comment on whether people ought to be coerced or not. People are coerced. I don't like to be coerced. Wherever possible, I will resist coercion. If other people fail to resist coercion, so be it. Their problem.

    I do think, almost aesthetically, that people should be encouraged to resist coercion, because their lives will be better if they do. It's my opinion and I use the word "should" cautiously because it is based, as I indicate, on an aesthetic view rather than a moral one. "Better" is also loaded.

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  10. Fair enough. However, when I as a communist actually propose a particular kind of governance and structure to replace capitalism, anarchists do say I'm a totalitarian dictator (or an apologist for totalitarian dictatorship) apparently just because I am proposing governance and structure; it does not appear to be related to the specific details of those structures.

    Most people are stupider than you. This is just a fact. 95% of people are bovine. The fact that they're 'anarchists' doesn't imbue them with miraculous intellectual powers or free them from this distribution of stupidity.

    Formal political anarchism does not equal an absence of predefined structure. There are some early anarchists, especially around the time of the Louis Napoleon fuck-up in France in 1851, who argued this passionately, but the pillars of anarchist political theory did not do so. They argued for structures that removed institutionalized privilege and mitigated the tendency towards inequality and the use of force. Many of the structures they described are quite beautiful, and not impractical. You should read Proudhon's 'System of Economic Contradictions', which is a wonderful source of food for thought, and in fact probably a work seminal both to formal anarchism and formal communism.

    The only really earnest modern attempt at practical, day-to-day anarchism in a real country was in Spain before the civil war, and anyone familiar with that period in history will know that political anarchism (in this case anarcho-socialism/syndicalism) has structure, it has rules, and it can be made to work in real life (until everyone else in Europe gangs up on you to put a stop to it).

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  11. I'm going to have to post separate responses to your comment, because of the limitations of your comment feature on your blog.

    Sorry. You're welcome to do as you've done and post multiple comments. You can also email me: I will definitely post responses with the tone and argumentation you've shown on the front page.

    Irrespective of the existence of laws or governments, they do them. My contention is that people who intend to rape, murder, steal and so on, are undeterred by the existence of laws or governments.

    This contention is incorrect. Since laws against rape specifically are newer than other laws, we can make scientific comparisons. And the data are unequivocal: making and strengthening laws against rape reduce the incidence of rape, and not just by incarcerating the rapists. Societies where rape is legally condemned have less rape than societies where rape is legally permitted.

    There are, of course, a lot of other factors. But the scientific truth is unambiguous that without specifically coercive prohibition, those other factors are substantially weakened.

    (Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape goes into these and similar issues in considerable detail.)

    I can't see why people couldn't take care of this on their own, collaboratively, on a case by case basis...

    It is definitely the case that at least some people are undeterred by laws and government. Even so, it is still desirable to make rape specifically illegal. It's desirable to use formal, objective criteria for determining when we do indeed impose actual coercion on people, and those formal objective criteria need a formal structure to be even a little better than, "kill or imprison everyone we don't like on a particular day."

    I can't see why people couldn't take care of this on their own, collaboratively, on a case by case basis, as they must have done in acephalous nomadic societies, for hundreds of thousands of years prior to the the rise of agriculture, which gave rise to divisions of labour, sedentary culture, and hierarchical structures.

    "Acephalous," cute.

    First of all, we do have agriculture, divisions of labor, and sedentary culture. One obvious at least hypothetical reason is that conditions have substantially changed.

    We really don't know all that much about prehistorical societies and their social structures. Writing and accurate written history mostly postdates agriculture, so we have only non-verbal paleontological evidence and a few contemporary cultures in remote areas.

    Also, as you note, we are all "anarchists" in a sense: Our "hierarchical" legal systems are what we already have worked out collaboratively.

    (Note that based on my reading, it looks like one big element of bullshit in anarchism is the deprecation of "hierarchy", which seems to mean either "socially constructed coercion" at best or at worst "coercion I personally don't like".)

    This is a common straw man. My opinion is that we already have an anarchist society and that no other society can, in fact, exist.

    Perhaps. But this view would seem to render "anarchism" somewhat vacuous, n'est pas?

    it may be that many of my opinions on this subject are not representative of the "mainstream" anarchist view.

    First, I must admit a degree of amusement at the thought of a "mainstream" anarchist view.

    Second, welcome to the club. I myself am in no better odor among socialists and communists than I am among anarchists.

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  12. Basically, they boil down to "natural rights" and "individual sovereignty", neither of which notions are controversial, I don't think.

    I'm not sure what you mean by uncontroversial here, since you yourself contend the ideas (as do I). Perhaps you just mean its uncontroversial that Bakunin et al. boil down to natural rights and individual sovereignty.

    The problem is that a violent, coercive group has never been stopped by argument, either philosophical or political.

    No argument there.

    I also do not believe in the existence of human rights, natural or otherwise.

    Nor do I, at least as objective entities. Rights are socially constructed.

    I do think, almost aesthetically, that people should be encouraged to resist coercion, because their lives will be better if they do.

    To the extent that my blessing is relevant, you have it: by all means, encourage people to resist coercion.

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  13. Most people are stupider than you.

    Thanks, but I you're mistaken. Comparatives are meaningless without measurement, and according to the unreliable measurements we do have I'm just not that smart. I just do my best to not fool myself, which seems to impress a lot of people... at least until I do my best to not fool myself about their own sacred cows, and then I seem to become a complete fucking idiot. <shrugs> I suppose I must take the good with the bad.

    They argued for structures that removed institutionalized privilege...

    Again, I'm not sure what "institutionalized privilege is" (and the descriptions I've read seem to imply "privileges I personally don't like") and the arguments I've seen don't hold water. Institutionalized privilege seems to be the only way that the superficially weaker can resist the superficially stronger. It's not like it's worked out all that well, but it seems better than nothing. Perhaps I'm wrong.

    Proudhon's 'System of Economic Contradictions'

    I have, a long time ago. I remember not being all that impressed overall, although he makes an excellent critique against the specific social constructions and institutions of his time. Which is to be expected: institutions and societies evolve, and evolution has never produced optimality.

    The only really earnest modern attempt at practical, day-to-day anarchism in a real country was in Spain before the civil war, and anyone familiar with that period in history will know that political anarchism (in this case anarcho-socialism/syndicalism) has structure, it has rules, and it can be made to work in real life (until everyone else in Europe gangs up on you to put a stop to it).

    I am indeed familiar with pre-civil war Spain and the details of anarcho-syndicalism.

    Much depends on the mode of justification: Do we justify anarcho-syndicalism because it is intrinsically good, or because it's pragmatically good, i.e. it leads to the best results?

    Keep in mind too that it's just as much a criterion for pragmatic success as any other that a society either survive when the rest of the world gangs up on it, or is able to persuade the rest of the world to not gang up on it.

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  14. No one ever asked me to sign a contract agreeing not to commit murder, rape, assault, theft, arson or mopery on the high seas. Now it happens to be the case that I personally don't want to do those things, but it seems that a number of people actually do want to do them.

    The state is either a voluntary association, and we can withdraw ourselves from it;
    or it isn't, and therefore it commits itself to tyrannizing me, you and everyone who does not accept the rules it sets for us.

    Certainly, the state can protect us against crimes. It can also commit crimes against us. Holocaust ? Do you have any understanding of a power that's too high ?

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  15. The state is either a voluntary association, and we can withdraw ourselves from it;
    or it isn't, and therefore it commits itself to tyrannizing me, you and everyone who does not accept the rules it sets for us.


    This is a fallacy of the excluded middle, and you're excluding a hell of a lot of middle between voluntary association and tyranny.

    Do you have any understanding of a power that's too high ?

    There's a difference between power that's too high, and power that's "higher" than no power at all.

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